Google’s Villain Arc

It seems so long ago when Google was the scrappy but growing technology upstart. It made sense of the morass that was the internet in the 2000s and early 2010s, and along the way rewrote the rules on digital advertising, It was1 a prestige employer, whose combination of R&D, business, technical prowess, and whimsy held the attention of journalists and the general public. Its offices and processes and culture set the standard for emulation by other tech companies for the past 2 decades; the prevalence of foosball tables and OKRs in smaller companies can be directly attributed to Google’s precedence.

The first post on this blog was drafted within Google’s Mountain View offices—on how Google interviews engineering candidates and tips to get past the phone screen interview—in between GWT compilation sessions. During my brief year of employment there, I can attest to my colleagues’ high level of technical abilities, and the excitement on campus for all the new projects the company launched. Through 2010–11, the company unveiled a smorgasbord of products: Google+, Google Wave, the Google Nexus phone, and Google TV2. The company was rapidly expanding beyond search, and every aspect of computing seemed to be untapped opportunities to apply Google’s blend of product development and engineering excellence.

This state of Googly optimism started to shift by the middle of the decade. In 2015, the company rolled out a corporate structure that formalized many of its moonshot divisions into their separate subsidiaries, eventually rolling all of them under the umbrella conglomerate Alphabet. In the same year, the company brought on a new CFO. In retrospect, both moves signaled a grudging acknowledgment that Google is a public company, beholden to shareholders even if the founders maintained strong control of its direction. In the years since, the promise of financial discipline has played out exactly as advertised: where aimless moonshots get shut down, non-performing products are quickly sunset, and the handful of profit-generating business lines are squeezed for ever-more revenue, often at the expense of user experience.

The original innovation of 10 blue links is now some combination of dark pattern ad units and affiliate-fee-driven result modules that look to keep users within Google’s product ecosystem. Meanwhile, YouTube keeps on tweaking its ads aggressively to drive users to paid subscriptions while clamping down on ad blockers circumventing its implementations. Customer-friendly provisions—unlimited photo storage, “never have to delete an email” Gmail, ending free personal-use G Suite accounts3—were curtailed, when it was no longer convenient to subsidize cloud costs.

It’s hard not to be cynical when good intentions are eventually distorted by the corrosive lens of revenue. Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) was meant to be a solution to slow websites4, but its controlling implementation spent up any remaining goodwill from the publishing industry. More secure Chrome extensions via Manifest v3 also have the advertising-friendly side effect of disabling ad blockers. It had one of the most memorable mottos in tech: “Don’t be evil.” Sadly, that simple yet effective quip was quietly removed from its code of conduct, only a few years back. Right now, it’s having to handle multiple antitrust lawsuits as the company is accused of unlawfully leveraging its monopolies, across search and the Play Store.

All that said—Google still has amazing tech, spends a ton on R&D to realize moonshots5, and continues to employ talented folks. Most of the villainy outlined above is not wholly intrinsic to the company’s culture, but the common pitfalls of corporate size and the grind of capitalist business expectations. They tried to run a public company differently and had succeeded—for over a decade!—and lived long enough to see itself become the villain.

  1. And I guess still is.

  2. Yes, I’ll note that none of these products still exist, and Wave never made it beyond a short public release; more on that below.

  3. To be fair though, a couple of months after the announcement, the outcry was strong enough to reverse the decision.

  4. I had supported the format here when it launched.

  5. For instance, Waymo is under-appreciated for quietly advancing the state of self-driving vehicles…without some of the fanfare of other autonomous driving companies.

Share this article
Shareable URL
Prev Post

A Ballad of Browser Tabs

Next Post

Content Everything

Read next